Oooh. 13. Unlucky for some. Seems to be fairly unlucky for Trip and Victor but then it wouldn't be interesting if they got to the Arbour and there was a large 'to end plot, press here' button.
As it's unlucky for some, I want to take a moment to talk about people who deserve to be luckier than they are. I donated to NaNoWriMo last year, the year before and I will do again this year. Especially as a teacher, I believe in getting people writing, particularly children. Imagination is a wonderful thing and it's entirely too possible that a generation of imagination is being stunted by the plethora of media available. Now, believe you me, I'm not a technological zealot; I love my technology too, but it has a place, and that place is aiding the expansion of an imagination, not replacing it.
NaNoWriMo sets up writing opportunities for children, among other things, and that is why I donate. If my $10 can get a single child, or even half a child, writing a story that will enthuse them and make them see that life is totally worth it, well, that's worth any amount of money.
Anyway. Enough! Here's Chapter 13!
Trip stared around in fascination. The small villages and towns they had passed through on their way to Fennica had not prepared him for the grandeur of the city. Soaring buildings, glittering white in the sunlight, taller than most of the trees he had seen in his life; windows, the sun glinting off pane after pane of glass like the stars had fallen to earth; and people, so many people, the whole city a living, breathing mass of flesh.
He wasn’t prepared for the smells and the squalor, either. They chugged past some of the poorest parts of town; he watched women washing their clothes in the befouled river, desperately trying to get them clean; there were men, stripped to the waste, digging trenches for foundations in conditions no better than those of a slave; children, teeth missing, kicked something around in a game he recognised, but then one picked the ball up and he saw that it was the corpse of a kitten, its fur mangy and matted.
“Why do they live like this?” he asked Victor, who was standing with one foot up on the railing, staring downriver.
“They ain’t got no hope, boy. This city’s got ‘em by the throat.” He gestured around at the buildings they passed.
“Look at it. It’s the best poss’ble thing, right? You made it. You live in the big city. Then you get ‘ere and the food’s twice the price, the housin’s three times the price and the wages is half as much as you could get out in the wild. None o’ that matters though because they’re ‘ere. They’ve arrived.” He continued to stare off down the river, seeming not to see everything going on around them.
Trip shrugged and turned to wave at the children who had started following them down the river bank. It wasn’t long before adults joined them again; passing through the north of the city they had drawn a small crowd, most of whom had been calling Victor’s name. Once the boat had passed the palace and the quality of the housing had gone down things had returned somewhat to normal.
“We’ll bring her in to the harbour,” Lauren called from the wheel. Trip wandered back to stand in the little cabin.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Certainly,” Lauren said with a smile. “Grab the rope coiled behind the wheelhouse. When we get to the dock you’ll need to jump off and tie it around the mooring post.”
Trip all-but ran round the back of the small cabin and grabbed the nearest piece of rope he could find. Then he went and stood at the railing, eager for his first view of a large city harbour.
As they came around a bend in the river the houses gave way to a large half-circle of land where the buildings were set back away from the river. Though the river continued on past the harbour, presumably as far as the sea, there were plenty of opportunities for Lauren to bring the Brass Bottomed Belle alongside one of the wooden jetties that stuck out a short distance. Almost before he could reach it, Trip was on the railing; he jumped, causing the Belle to rock alarmingly; his landing threw dust up, rattled through his sandals and cause his arm to twinge alarmingly but he was too excited to notice the pain.
“We need to get along the pier a bit more, Trip,” Lauren called. Trip nodded and began to walk alongside the boat, which had slowed to a reasonable pace.
It wasn’t long before they had found a mooring point. Lauren stepped over the railing and began to teach Trip the finer points of knot-tying.
“This one over here; under, around… there. See how it can’t come loose?”
Trip nodded, his eyes narrowed.
“Do you want to try?” Lauren said, already loosening it.
Trip took the end and closed his eyes, letting his memory do the work. When he opened them he had tied the knot exactly the same, perfect first time.
Lauren shook her head disbelievingly. “If everyone could do that, what a world we would live in. You have such a gift, Trip!”
“It’s just a thing I can do. I’ve never really had to use it until recently.”
She lay a hand on his shoulder. “Use it or lose it, Dad used to say. Besides, it’s saved your life once already from what Victor tells me.”
At the mention of his name they both looked over to where he was stood. Still motionless on the prow of the boat, Victor seemed not to be looking at the view in front of him but rather viewing some sort of internal picture, lost in memories of something.
“Is he ok?” Trip asked quietly.
“He’ll be fine. We talked a lot while you were… while you slept. I think he misses Dad too.” She checked the knot once more, pronounced it good and climbed back onto the boat, moving to join Victor.
Trip looked around at the harbour and breathed in deeply. The smell of the river wasn’t particularly pleasant but it was mixed with the smell of fish brought upriver from the sea to sell at the market, small hints of exotic spice on the air and, underneath it all, the smell he was coming to associate as ‘city’. A mix of smoke, human sweat, waste and animals. As horrible as it was in turns, he drank it in.
More than anything, there were people everywhere. Sailors walked past carrying large sacks over one shoulder; a man was fishing off the end of the pier and, behind him, a small group of children were playing with a ball - actually a ball this time, Trip was glad to note. A woman was walking up the wooden jetty, not apparently going anywhere but taking her time about it. Five other women were stood in a circle, each wearing a headscarf; their squalling chatter seemed to focus mostly on their husbands who were lazy, idle, good-for-nothing deckhands. A man with dark skin dressed in a long orange cloak and matching hat walked past with a retinue of ten men dressed in white smocks, each one bearing a gold collar around his neck. They carried small ornate boxes apart from the one nearest the man who, Trip noticed, was carrying a vase painted with the most delicate designs.
Through the crowd came a man wearing a dark blue uniform. He carried a clipboard and was staring down his nose through a pair of small glasses, tapping his pencil against the board. When he reached the Belle, he began to make notes, humming through his teeth as he did so.
“Can I help you?” Trip said, walking up to him.
“Not unless this is yours, boy,” said the man in a nasal wheeze, “which I sincerely doubt.”
“Well, it belongs to that lady there. She brought us here in it,” Trip replied, pointing at Lauren, who was still stood with Victor. “Do you want me to get her?”
“Get her, boy, and let’s get down to this.”
Trip frowned. “Is she in trouble?”
“I said get her, boy, are you deaf?”
Trip held the man’s imperious gaze for a moment, then let his eyes drop. “Yes sir,” he said, getting back on to the boat and approaching Lauren.
She was standing close to Victor, her hand on his arm. As Trip grew near he could hear them talking.
“…Shouldn’t worry about ‘im, I know, but-“
“But it’s in your nature, Victor. You’re a carer, whether you want to be or not. And right now he needs you.”
“Um,” Trip said. Quick as a flash, Victor turned around and frowned; Lauren’s arm dropped to her side and she coughed suddenly.
“There’s a man over there who says he wants to talk to you, Lauren. He doesn’t seem very friendly though,” Trip said, pointing at the uniformed man.
“It’ll be the Harbourmaster. I’ll deal with it,” she said, moving over to the rail and hailing the official.
Trip stood and stared at Victor for a moment, unsure of what to say. Victor saved him the trouble.
“‘Ow’s the shoulder?”
“It’s ok, I think,” Trip replied. “Still hurts when I try and move it.”
“Don’ try and move it then.”
“No, I won’t,” Trip grinned. Then, suddenly serious, he stood up a little straighter. “Thank you for saving my life.”
Victor grunted and cut him off. “’Twas nothin’, boy. Only earnin’ my money. Don’t get paid if the client dies.”
“Lauren said it was more than that.”
“Believe nothin’ that little minx says, boy, if’n you want my suggestion,” Victor said with some finality, and then he stretched, armour plates sliding against each other. “Let’s get goin’, boy; Lauren’s said to leave her here with the stuff. She’s meetin’ the Duke tomorrow, said to get ourselves a place to sleep here in the city an’ sort ourselves an audience with the Duke. Might take a bit o’ time though; we’re not exactly important.”
They began to walk to the wheelhouse. “How can we not be important? We’ve got evidence that the whole Tree might be dying!”
Victor grabbed the heavier travel pack and bade Trip to pick up the bag of evidence. They stepped off to the boat and on to the wooden jetty, past Lauren who was still arguing over something to do with ‘mooring rights’ with the Harbourmaster. As they went past, Victor touched her on the elbow and stared at the man, who visible wilted. Lauren flashed him a grateful smile and pulled out a letter. Trip and Victor walked past, leaving the Belle behind. Trip stared back at it; despite the danger he had faced while riding it, he hoped that another ride would be in his future.
“Think about it, lad,” Victor said as they passed between two much larger sailing ships. “You’re the Duke. Who do you see first, the men who are responsible for a gang settin’ up in your city, stealin’ grain and takin’ wimmin hostage, or an old man and a boy with a bag of sticks? He’ll take ‘is sweet time to see us.” He swung the pack down and onto his other shoulder. “‘Sides, quicker I hand you over, quicker I c’n go back to my village.”
Trip felt a sudden weight descend on his heart. Victor had said it so quickly and with such certainty; the idea that he would be forced apart from the man was something that hadn’t really crossed his mind. Trip bowed his head, a lump forming in his throat.
They stepped onto the cobbled street. All around them a market was in progress, apparently set up with no real plan on the waterfront. As they began to thread their way through the stalls, Trip noticed the guards standing in the entrance to one of the roads leading away from the marketplace. They seemed to be watching him.
“Now, I wonder if Old Man Price is still runnin’ ‘Price’s Right’ over by the university… always used to have the best ale in town,” Victor muttering. Trip watched the guards watching him, then saw them stand and start to move directly towards them.
“Victor, there are guards coming,” he said.
“We ain’t done nothin’ wrong, lad.”
Two more guards came from the right, around two stalls, straight for them. Trip looked left; sure enough there were two more there. As their path was blocked on all sides, Victor stopped short.
“Now then, what’s all this about?” he asked. The guards didn’t say anything. Trip turned around, expecting to see another two guards, but it was not to be.
Behind them were four guards lead by a tall young woman, not too much older than Trip himself. Her blonde hair was blowing in the breeze and the sword she had out was reflecting the sunlight almost directly into his eyes.
“You are under arrest,” she said, a horrible smile on her face, “for murder.”